Tania Bond has been waiting for justice since Dec. 27, 2017, when a Philadelphia police officer fatally shot her husband, Dennis Plowden Jr., in the head as he sat unarmed on a Germantown curb.
Seventeen months later — and nearly seven months after the officer, Eric Ruch Jr., was fired by Police Commissioner Richard Ross for violating department policy on the use of deadly force — Bond says authorities have told her nothing about the status of the criminal investigation.
“It feels insensitive, frustrating, and as if Dennis’ life wasn’t significant — and it was,” Bond told The Inquirer. The couple had a child together, and Plowden had been working toward his high school diploma at Northeast High School’s Twilight School program, according to Center City attorney Paul J. Hetznecker, who is preparing to sue the city on Bond’s behalf over her husband’s killing.
“He left behind a family, and we need answers,” said Bond. “We want to know: Is there a deadline or time frame in this investigation? I want to feel confident a thorough investigation is taking place, and that’s hard to do when every time you reach out, I continue to receive the same response: ‘It’s still under investigation.’ I need something more than that.”
The shooting followed a high-speed chase that began when officers spotted Plowden driving a white Hyundai that had been linked to a homicide a week before. Although Plowden was not a suspect in the homicide, he sped away from the pursuing officers and crashed the vehicle into two parked cars. He stumbled from his wrecked car — likely dazed, Ross has said — and was shot moments later by Ruch.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who took office six days after Ruch killed Plowden, was propelled into office in part by a pledge to crack down on violent officers.
“If we have facts and we have the law, if we follow the evidence instead of following anybody’s politics, and we have a case in Philadelphia County, we are bringing a case,” Krasner said shortly after taking office.
Ben Waxman, a spokesperson for Krasner, said the Ruch investigation is active.
“Our office’s Special Investigation Unit investigates every officer-involved shooting that occurs,” said Waxman. “These are very complex investigations that require a good deal of resources and take a significant amount of time to complete, especially if there is a fatality involved in the shooting.”
Last September, Krasner charged Officer Ryan Pownall with murder and related crimes in the June 2017 killing of David Jones. Pownall, 37, who was fired in 2017, is free on bail and scheduled to be tried in January 2020. In both cases, a white cop killed a black man.
If Krasner — a former defense lawyer who sued the Police Department 75 times — files charges against Ruch, 31, it would mark the first time that two former Philly cops would face criminal charges at the same time for on-duty fatal shootings, legal observers say.
“We’ve been around for a long time, and to the best of my knowledge, we have not seen this,” said civil rights lawyer Paul Messing of the Center City law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin.
Hans Menos, executive director of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, which reviews policies and practices of the Police Department, said he strongly supports Ross’ firing of Ruch but would defer to Krasner on whether the ex-officer should join Pownall on the police blotter.
Attorney Hetznecker said: “Given the history of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s decision not to prosecute on-duty police officers for on-duty shootings, to charge two officers in a matter of two years, if they do charge, that would be historic, that would be unprecedented.”
John McNesby, president of Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, declined to comment.
Since 2013, Philadelphia police have killed 33 people in the line of duty. Officers in 20 of those killings have been cleared of wrongdoing by the District Attorney’s Office, while the remaining cases are pending, according to the Officer Involved Shootings page on the Police Department’s website.
When Krasner charged Pownall with murder last year, it was the first time in nearly 20 years that an officer was charged in an on-duty killing. During a North Philadelphia traffic stop in October 1998, Officer Christopher DiPasquale fired a bullet into the brain of unarmed teenager Donta Dawson. DiPasquale was fired, but never stood trial because two judges dismissed manslaughter charges filed by then-District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham. The city paid Dawson’s mother $712,000 to stop her pending lawsuit.
In Pennsylvania since 2015, on-duty police have fatally shot 69 people, according to a Washington Post database that tracks on-duty police killings. But only four officers have faced charges in that period. In addition to Pownall, fired rookie South Whitehall Officer Jonathan Roselle, 34, is awaiting a September trial for the July 28 shooting death of Joseph Santos, 44, near Dorney Park in Lehigh County.
Roselle, a white officer charged with voluntary manslaughter, was recorded on a bystander’s cellphone ordering Santos, who was Hispanic, to stop walking toward him, then firing a barrage of fatal shots when he did not comply.
In March, a jury cleared former East Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld, 31, in the June 2018 shooting death of Antwon Rose II, 17. The shooting, which happened after the teen ran from a car that police were trying to stop because they said it was connected to a shooting minutes earlier, so roiled the community that the jury was selected from Dauphin County and was sequestered during the trial in downtown Pittsburgh.
Protesters denounced as racist the shooting of the black teen by the white officer, and considered the ex-cop’s acquittal a miscarriage of justice. “It is incredibly difficult to get a police officer held accountable anywhere in the United States,” Lee Merritt, an attorney representing Rose’s mother, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The fourth Pennsylvania officer, Lisa Mearkle of the Hummelstown Police Department in Dauphin County, was found not guilty of third-degree murder in November 2015 for fatally shooting David Kassick, 59, in February 2015.
Mearkle, who resigned after being acquitted, shot Kassick twice in the back after he fell face-first into the snow while running from his car after being pulled over for an expired inspection sticker. Mearkle, who is white, said she fired out of fear when Kassick, who is also white, ignored repeated commands to show his hands. Kassick’s family received $300,000 from Hummelstown in a settlement.
Since 2005 nationwide, 102 police officers have been charged in on-duty killings, according to Philip M. Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who maintains a database on the subject.
That is a tiny fraction of the people who are killed by police each year. According to the Post database, officers kill more than 900 people a year.